By Jack Dolinar (2019)
When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, he didn’t realize how many industries he would disrupt. He also didn’t realize how many he would create. And while Amazon was originally built to sell books, no one predicted that Amazon would one day control not only a dominant share of the market selling print books but also a more-than-dominant share of the market selling ebooks. In 2017, more than 83% of English-language ebooks were sold through Amazon. Data suggests that as high as 42% of those ebooks were self-published by indie authors. (AuthorEarnings.com) This paper explores the repercussions of one vital Amazon decision with regards to self-publishing, and how that decision impacted a community of indie authors on Reddit: r/EroticAuthors. Despite initial frustration and pushback against Amazon’s author payment changes, the pragmatism of the group led veteran community members to endorse new styles of writing and to recommend publishing longer romance novels over shorter pieces of erotica.
It is necessary, though, to begin with several pieces of context. In July 2014, Amazon unveiled Kindle Unlimited (KU), a subscription service that allows readers unlimited access to a massive library of Amazon ebooks for only $10 per month. While this was a boon for many voracious readers, authors who allowed their books to be shared from this library would also be well-compensated. For the first year of Kindle Unlimited’s existence, authors would be paid every time someone downloaded and read at least 10% of their book. This first year is referred to as “KU 1.0,” the first iteration in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited author payment method.
Examining this straightforward author compensation strategy, however, reveals a simple flaw. If authors were only being paid for a download and a 10% read-through, then writers of longer novels are penalized and writers of shorter stories are rewarded. It is, after all, easier to read 10% of a 30-page short story than it is to read 10% of a 300-page novel. This very situation, in fact, led Amazon to announce a change in June of 2015 — now, instead of being paid per download, authors would be paid much more equitably by number of pages read. (Written Word Media) This ushered in the era of “KU 2.0.” Then, 7 months later in January 2016, Amazon made a change that would normalize text and page size when determining pages read. This established the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC). Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing page explains that “KENPC is calculated using standard formatting settings (font, line height, line spacing, etc.)” and is intended to “reward authors whose books are being borrowed and read the most by customers.” (Amazon) Author backlash to these modifications was fierce. While Amazon claimed that authors would only experience, at most, a 5% change in the page counts of their books upon the introduction of KENPC, some saw as high as 10%, and for many this had a huge impact on their biggest source of income — their books in the Kindle Unlimited library. This widespread response to KU 2.0 included members of the r/EroticAuthors community.
The sidebar of r/EroticAuthors (EA) explains the purpose of the community succinctly: “This forum is for discussion of the craft and business of self-publishing.” (“R/eroticauthors.” Reddit) Specifically, the group fosters self-published authors of erotica and romance. Discussion topics include tips on best practice, goal-setting and accountability, occasional AMA (Ask Me Anything) threads with well-regarded or highly successful self-published authors and conversations about changes in the industry. The EA subreddit is an important and useful resource for self-publishing authors in these genres, in particular, because of its size. While, as of March 2019, r/SelfPublishing has only 2,682 members and r/Romance has only 3,845 members, EA boasts a whopping 17,099. As with many internet communities, members range from a host of beginners (newcomers who are looking to start self-publishing) to a few well-respected veterans (individuals whose words guide, inspire and encourage from the front). With a sampling of authors across experience levels and a sizable population, EA provides an excellent microcosm for examining the impact of Amazon’s decision on a romance-writing community. In fact, because many EA authors write in categories of romance that are more likely to be published independently than traditionally (such as erotic romance or short stories), EA was a group that was especially vulnerable to developments in the Amazon KU system.
KU 2.0 was met by many in the community with shock, frustration and indignation. However, in the years since the event, most influential members of the community consider it a motivation which will encourage writers out of their comfort zone and into the business of romance. If, however, we take Amazon at face value (a bit of a risky proposition, of course) when they say their goal is to reward good authors, then why are self-publishers so upset? Simply this… KU 2.0 is less profitable than KU 1.0.
Initial Responses to KU 2.0
Before the changeover, only a small investment of time and effort was required (to write a short work) while the return was incredible. One EA redditer (who has since deleted their account and so shall remain nameless) published an advice post in December of 2015, “How to make money in KU 2.0,” which also described the author’s success in KU 1.0. “I started making about $10/day,” they wrote, “and by the end of KU 1.0 [a month and a half later] was making over $150/day.” (“I Quit Erotica”) $150 per day comes to almost $55,000 per year, only a few thousand dollars shy of the household income of the average American. (Martin, “Here’s How Much the Average American Earns at Every Age.”) Later in the post, the redditer describes being excited for a work in KU 2.0 to generate $364 in its entire lifespan. Seeing that kind of drastic change in ROI signals any businessperson that the market is changing (or the business that owns the market — Amazon — is changing) and new strategies are required.
Running the numbers six months after the fall of KU 1.0, self-published author and blogger Chris McMullen wrote an article entitled, “Kindle Unlimited 2.0 — Should You Stay or Should You Go?” In it, he lays out the math behind KU 2.0 and KENPC, and what that means for a self-publisher. Assuming, McMullen writes, that a reader consumes 100% of an author’s work, that author’s break-even point (when they make as much from page reads as they would from a purchase) is around 233 KENPC pages. (McMullen) If we project one KENPC page to be around 300 words, then that comes to almost 70,000 words. (“EBook Page Lengths.” K-lytics.) Who has time to write a 70,000-word book? Definitely not a newbie self-publisher who entered the scene expecting that writing in their free time would be enough to earn them a part-time income (a common expectation generated in the time of KU 1.0). Even for pros, KU 2.0 made it necessary to pivot to longer projects, an investment of time and effort that is intimidating to new authors and to those who were used to taking things easy.
In the autumn of 2015, EA community member KDPer2 made a post called, “I missed the golden age.” The redditer described this “age” as a brief period between KU 1.0 and 2.0 when authors were rewarded for merit and not for “keyword stuffed, irrelevant titles” that took advantage of Amazon’s search algorithms, but it is clear that the community has not forgotten the heyday of shorter, self-published fiction (KU 1.0). KDPer2 seems to be voicing a popular grievance that when Amazon shifted from KU 1.0 to KU 2.0 a majority of authors were being punished for the exploitative tactics of a few. This conniving minority, supposedly, brought about KU 2.0 and KENPC by taking advantage of loopholes in KU’s initial formulation. By publishing many short stories in succession, they flooded search results with their titles. They used the tables of contents to jump readers hundreds of pages into a book in order to get more “page reads.” Alternatively, they used excessively large fonts or other blatant methods to give their ebooks more heft. While there is no evidence that these blackhat self-publishers led to Amazon’s policy changes, it is difficult to believe that Amazon was unaware of the issues and that these shady tactics did not provide at least a part of Amazon’s motivation.
Responses to KDPer2’s complaint reference KU 1.0 as one of the highlights of Amazon self-publishing, but already it is evident that experienced authors are trying to move on. Redditer HaydenArcher, whose response received the most upvotes from readers of the thread, rebutted, “Eh, you didn’t miss any golden age… The golden age was KU1 when that sweet sweet bubble money was flowing in… The golden age was right after KU1 when all the scammers left en masse… The golden age is right now when we’re getting paid per pages and finally long novels are the winners, yeah!” (KDPer2, “I Missed the Golden Age.”) This attitude, one of optimism (or at least realism) instead of nostalgia is what seems to separate the veteran authors from those who viewed writing fiction as simply a cash cow.
What we can learn from these encounters, however, is that whether individual community members were for, against or ambivalent to Amazon’s impactful alteration, EA as a whole is definitely a group that views the craft of self-publishing as a business, rather than as a hobby. Arguments against the change were on the basis of decreased income and increased workload to maintain revenue. Meanwhile, more pragmatic redditers responded with claims of their own. Arguments are stuffed with jargon — everything from the now-familiar “KENPC” and references to the “shelf-life” of a published work to marketing terms and self-promotion tips and tricks — and the EA “Frequently Asked Questions” page has links to posts like: “How do I choose keywords and categories?”, “How do I handle taxes?” and “What POV and tense to use?” Authors and aspiring authors come to EA for guidance in turning their hobby into an income or to mentor others who are following the same path. This is important to recognize, because this paper’s understanding of r/EroticAuthors hinges on seeing the community as a collection of businesspeople and entrepreneurs. Their response to KU 2.0 was motivated by business concerns and their eventual solutions came from the same pragmatic source.
The EA Perspective
Examining r/EroticAuthors as a community that views writing as a business is useful because it allows us to recognize, and even predict, the shift in focus of EA after the instantiation of KU 2.0. Before this change, EA primarily recommended that authors write short, erotic fiction. This catered to the trend that was rewarded by Amazon’s first payment system, which we recognized earlier as penalizing authors of longer works by highly rewarding authors of shorter stories. Community member ElannaReese differentiated erotica from romance in a post (which moderators have since added to the FAQ page) where she uses what she calls her “Cupcake Analogy.” “[In] Romance,” she writes, “the story, plot and characterization is the cake and frosting and the sex is the sprinkles. This means it can be covered in sprinkles, have no sprinkles, or have some interesting combination of sprinkles.” (ElannaReese) Meanwhile, “[in] erotica,” ElannaReese explains, “the sex is the cake and frosting and whatever else you write around the sex is the sprinkles.” Works of erotica were considered easier to fit into fewer pages because the only requisite component is at least one sexual encounter. Romance, meanwhile, was believed to be more work-intensive and less rewarded because it asked for more depth of characterization and plot from the author who wrote it. In the wake of KU 2.0, however, EA members have noticed a change in the advice they’re getting from their more senior mentors. Unlike its younger sibling (KU 1.0), KU 2.0 favors the longer-form writing that EA sees as a requirement for writing romance.
In a post from June 2016, VaesAndalus asked the subreddit, “Transition into Romance? Why?” Elaborating, the redditer wrote, “It seems a few of us are moving into romance? I am curious as to why. Do you find writing longer works makes more sense with KU 2.0 or do you enjoy longer works…?” Looking at EA as a collection of businesspeople, we can already assume that “enjoying longer works” isn’t part of the equation (for the most part) and upon reading the responses to this question we see our expectations are correct. Redditer Frogger2222 commented excitedly (in the most upvoted response to the question), “I’ve made more from my first 5 days of romance with one book than I did with my first month of erotica with 11 titles.” Meanwhile, KayMcDammit explains, “A similar (though not identical) skillset is needed for both. If both genres come relatively easy to you, the ROI on romance is much better.” (VaesAndalus) ROI, a ubiquitous business world acronym standing for “Return On Investment,” encapsulates both the outlook of EA and also the reasons why KU 2.0 faced widespread author criticism from short-form writers. KU 2.0 was unpopular because it reduced the ROI of writing and self-publishing fiction. In the past three years, strategies for succeeding in a post-KU 1.0 world have been slowly teased out by veteran EA members, but one in particular sets the tone for the conclusion to this piece.
Changing Market Conditions
One of the most revered gurus in r/EroticAuthors is ThrowieTheTowel, an author who has been in the group for years providing hard-hitting tactical advice for indie wannabes. When Throwie talks, EA listens, and in February 2017, Throwie made this comment about the state of the industry which encapsulates the trend of EA as a whole:
“The game has changed. The market has shifted and Kindle Unlimited has entirely reshaped the world. Right now the game favors longer works. It favors novels. The current is behind you pushing novels down stream with incredible force. Why not swim with the current? Let the system work with you, instead of working against the system.” (“Relentlessly Study.”)
This practical and unidealistic world of r/EroticAuthors might surprise a visitor who expected an online writer community to be more akin to a group of starving artists. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that while longtime EA members are driven by a strong business acumen, this does not mean that they are any less passionate or artistic about what they create. Reading Throwie’s 1,000-word (but only 3 KENPC-page) declaration on the state of the industry, it is obvious that Throwie is deeply fascinated and zealous about the creation of a life and career as an indie author. The redditer’s prose is emotive and punchy, yet conversational, demonstrating a persuasive writing skill borne of long practice. For EA members, it seems, the stereotypical dichotomy of business and creativity has dissolved as the two came together and integrated into something new and entirely modern: a group of authors that doesn’t just create to survive but which has evolved so that it can create and thrive.
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